McCracken, Mary Ann (1770–1866), radical and philanthropist, was born 8 July 1770 in Belfast, younger daughter and fifth of the six children of Capt. John McCracken (c.1719–1803), a prosperous merchant of Belfast, and his wife Ann (c.1730–1814), daughter of Francis Joy (qv), whose family owned and edited the Belfast News-Letter. Mary Ann and her siblings attended the experimental school of David Manson (qv). In the mid 1780s the young musician Edward Bunting (qv) came to live with the family and remained with them for thirty years, and was regarded as a younger brother by the McCracken children.
The McCrackens and Joys were part of Belfast's liberal presbyterian middle class, supporting the Volunteers and pressing for political reform during the 1780s. In the mid 1790s Mary Ann's three elder brothers joined the United Irishmen but little is known of Mary Ann herself before 1797, when she wrote a series of letters to her brother Henry Joy McCracken (qv), whose political activities had led to his imprisonment in Kilmainham gaol, together with their brother William (1756–1814). These remarkable letters show Mary Ann's intellectual and political maturity, and her commitment to the United Irish cause, whatever the cost might be to its leaders. Moreover, influenced probably by Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the rights of woman, she argued that the liberty and equality for which the United Irishmen were campaigning should be extended to women: ‘. . . is it not almost the time for the clouds of error and prejudice to disperse and that the female part of the creation as well as the male should throw off the fetters with which they have been so long mentally bound and conscious of the dignity and importance of their nature rise to the situation for which they were designed . . .’ (Madden papers, 151).
The McCracken brothers were released at the end of 1797 and continued their work as United Irishmen. Further arrests in 1798 meant that when the rebellion broke out in May, most of the leaders were already in custody, and there was little immediate prospect of help from France. When Robert Simms (qv), the United Irish commander for Co. Antrim, refused to act, Henry Joy McCracken took his place and led the insurgents into battle for the town of Antrim (7 June). After their defeat, he and a few companions went into hiding. Mary Ann managed to find them, visited them, supplied them with money and clothes, and arranged for her brother to sail to America. On his way to board ship, he was arrested, and shortly afterwards was tried and sentenced to be hanged; Mary Ann attended his trial, and walked with him to the place of execution in Belfast High St., leaving him there at his request. Afterwards she had strenuous efforts made to resuscitate his corpse. Next, her brother William emerged from hiding and was arrested; Mary Ann obtained an interview with Gen. Gerard Lake (qv) and her brother was released on bail. Although there is no documentation for Mary Ann's own activities in the period leading up to the rebellion, her family background, her commitment to the cause, and her efficiency in helping her brothers, all suggest that she was herself involved in the United Irish movement.
She continued to support the revolutionary cause and to oppose the union. In 1803 Thomas Russell (qv), who had been a close friend of her brother Henry, came secretly to the north to enlist the support of the former United Irish leaders for the rebellion he had planned with Robert Emmet (qv). Russell had been imprisoned from 1796 to 1802, when he was released on condition that he live abroad. Mary Ann and her sister Margaret (1760–1829) found him lodgings and visited him there. When Emmet's rebellion broke out prematurely in Dublin in July, and Russell's proclamation met with little response in Ulster, they arranged for his escape to Dublin; after his arrest there, they attempted to bribe his gaolers. Mary Ann arranged and paid for his defence at his trial at Downpatrick in October 1803 – and for his tombstone. After his death she organised financial assistance for his sister Margaret (1752–1834). Mary Ann's actions in 1803 have been interpreted by her earlier biographers as proof of her unrequited love for Russell; but although she had known Russell in Belfast prior to his arrest in 1796, they do not appear ever to have corresponded after that date, and there is no contemporary evidence at all to support the theory that she was motivated by love for the man rather than commitment to the cause.
From the 1790s Mary Ann and Margaret ran a small business manufacturing and selling muslins. For a time they were very successful and took a keen interest in the welfare of their workers, but changing economic conditions led to closure c.1815. Shortly after the death of Henry Joy McCracken, they adopted his illegitimate daughter Maria, and she lived with them until her marriage. From 1814 the sisters were members of the ladies’ committee of the Belfast Charitable Society, concerned with the welfare of the women and children in the Belfast poorhouse, which had been designed by one of the founders, their uncle Robert Joy (qv). The ladies’ committee was re-formed as a more active body in 1827 and Mary Ann became secretary in 1832. Thereafter she worked tirelessly on behalf of the women and children, explaining her requirements to the gentlemen's committee with trenchant common sense, and gradually wringing concessions from them through sheer tenacity. Her philanthropic interests were wide: apart from her lifelong support for the cause of equality for women, particularly though education, she campaigned for the abolition of slavery and of the employment of climbing boys in chimney sweeping; she helped famine victims and the destitute sick, and she taught for years in an undenominational Sabbath school.
She maintained a lively interest in politics and was an admirer of Daniel O'Connell (qv). She corresponded (1840–59) with the historian R. R. Madden (qv), supplying him with important information about her brothers and the history of the United Irishmen. Remaining intellectually and physically active into her 90s, she died 26 July 1866 at the home of her niece Maria. A miniature of Mary Ann at the age of about 30 is in the possession of Maria's descendants, and a photograph taken shortly before her death is at the Ulster Museum, Belfast.